CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Labor opportunism over Aborigines, environment
, October 16, 2010
The political editor for the Sydney Morning Herald recently expressed shock that Australia’s first Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives in 110 years had chosen the Liberal Party as the vehicle for his political career.
Commenting on the maiden speech of new member for the Western Australian seat of Hasluck, Ken Wyatt, Mr Hartcher reported verbatim portions of the speech:
"Only 1,093 people have been privileged to be a member of the House of Representatives. It is with deep and mixed emotion that I, as an Aboriginal man with Noongar, Yamitji and Wongi heritage, stand before you and the members of the House of Representatives as an equal."
But Mr Hartcher’s subsequent commentary revealed a not untypical view that only the Labor Party supports Aboriginal advancement and is entitled to occupy the moral high ground on indigenous affairs - particularly in the light of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generation.
"The surprise is that Ken Wyatt is in Parliament, not as a Labor member, but as a Liberal. Indeed, he won his WA seat of Hasluck at the expense of Labor," Mr Hartcher wrote.
Mr Hartcher was clearly oblivious to the fact that Mr Wyatt’s seat is named after arguably the most outstanding and empathetic Aboriginal affairs ministers in Australian government - Sir Paul Hasluck.
In fact, it was a Liberal Government in 1967 which initiated the referendum to change the Constitution to allow indigenous people to be included in the census and therefore gain equality as citizens in their own country - a referendum which was supported by 90 per cent of Australians.
It was also the Liberal Party which pre-selected Neville Bonner to the Senate - first as a candidate in a half-Senate election, and then as the choice of the Queensland Government to fill a Senate vacancy in 1971. Senator Bonner remained in the Senate until 1983.
On the other hand, Don Dunstan’s Labor Government appointed (Sir) Douglas Nicholls Governor of South Australia in 1976, Labor’s Neville Perkins of the Northern Territory became the first indigenous person to be elected to a shadow ministry, while Labor’s Ernie Bridge (Labor) from WA became the first indigenous person in Australia to hold a ministerial office.
The point is neither side of politics can lay claim to moral superiority as far as Aboriginal representation goes - and, in the Federal Parliament at least, the Liberal Party has a much better record.
Now the Parliament is facing an important and symbolic decision on the rights of Aboriginal people to determine their own destiny - the question of the Queensland wild rivers legislation.
The original legislation to lock up the rivers of Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria from any form of development was made by the Bligh Labor Government at the behest of the Wilderness Society in a grubby deal to gain Greens preferences at a state election.
The Aboriginal people of Cape York, led by Noel Pearson, have argued that the laws severely prohibit development on Aboriginal lands, and deny the people the ability to have an economic base in the future.
This includes so-called sustainable development such as fishing lodges, which will be prohibited from being built inside a buffer zone near the rivers in order to protect the natural environment.
The Anglican diocese of Brisbane, through its Social Justice Committee, is among several churches to declare that the laws are unjust and will stifle legitimate economic opportunities.
"The cost of the wild rivers legislation in human terms is its likely impact on future job opportunities on Cape York, and the consequent loss of dignity; loss of hope; loss of wellbeing and potential embedded future suffering," the report said.
"The legislation simply prohibits most, if not all, commercial development activities, even sustainable development activities, within areas of high preservation; areas which by their very nature are the most productive and therefore viable land."
Before the recent federal election, Opposition leader Tony Abbott introduced legislation to restore the rights of indigenous Queenslanders to guarantee free, prior and informed consent before any wild rivers declarations were made. The Senate voted in favour of Mr Abbott’s laws.
There has already been a Senate inquiry into the wild rivers laws, but now Prime Minister Julia Gillard has initiated a second inquiry to be conducted by the House of Representatives. Ms Gillard knows the issue is divisive and that federal Labor is vulnerable in a hung parliament, so she is using delay tactics until the Greens assume the balance of power in the Senate from July next year.
Mr Pearson has described the latest inquiry as putting the issue "on the never-never".
While there are many claims made about championing the cause of indigenous Australians, the truth is the Greens and sections of the Labor Party actually want Aboriginal people to have restricted rights - the right to own their own land on a communal basis only, and only for traditional utility such as fishing and gathering food. In other words, they want them to remain as museum exhibits.
Many people in the Labor Party know the wild rivers legislation is flawed and unjust, but will not move against the Blight Government.
Independent federal MP Bob Katter has argued persuasively and passionately that the issue is a fundamental one for Aboriginal people in north Queensland. The two other independents who occupy conservative seats may soon be facing the first test of principle versus opportunism.